New Reports: Port Project Delays A Blow To Workers, And Washington Economy

Backers of proposed fossil fuel shipping facilities at Washington State ports are reiterating concerns about multi-year permitting processes and the lost or delayed jobs that can result. Seen here, the Port of Seattle, and Mount Rainier from the Magnolia Bridge. Photo: Sounder Bruce.

Recent reports from the Washington Maritime Federation (WMF) and Washington Research Council (WRC) emphasize that lengthy permitting processes for proposed fossil fuel transport projects at major Washington ports hurt the state by stalling or killing jobs-rich economic development. Port and labor leaders are voicing similar concerns.

Meanwhile, in public hearings this week in Longview and Vancouver, Washington labor leaders and other supporters urged officials to more quickly green-light one such project, the Millennium Bulk Terminal, to handle exports of cleaner-burning Powder Basin U.S. coal to Asia for electricity to serve rapidly growing consumer markets. Also long delayed while under state review is the proposed Tesoro-Savage crude oil transfer facility at the Port of Vancouver, Washington.

‘Runaway Project Permitting Timelines’

Both Canada’s “shot clock” approach to permitting deadlines and California’s Environmental Quality Act mandate that environmental assessments be completed within one year. In a recently released report, WMF recommends Washington follow suit instead of continuing its “runaway project permitting timelines.”

State review for the Millennium project began in 2012, and in 2013 for the Vancouver oil transfer terminal proposal. Neither has yet been approved. Also underscoring the current tough sledding for energy export projects in Washington, in late September, the Whatcom County Council extended for six more months a 60-day ban on the shipping of unrefined fossil fuels through the county.

On energy export and other maritime infrastructure project approvals, “We’ve seen other states moving…to make a decision within a finite amount of time. Washington does not seem to be going in that direction,” David Matsuda, lead author of the WMF report, told Lens. He is former U.S. Maritime Administrator to the Obama Administration.

Washington already faces competition from California, east coast ports and facilities in British Columbia (B.C.), Canada. The federation found that the ports of Seattle and Tacoma trail the pace of container growth seen at two competing B.C. ports, Prince Rupert and Vancouver.

Although Seattle and Tacoma had 48 percent of the Pacific Northwest container cargo market share in 2011, that fell to 42 percent in 2014. During the same period, the Port of Vancouver, B.C.’s share of that market grew from 44 to 48 percent, and Prince Rupert’s from 7 to 10 percent.

Trade-based Jobs Take A Hit

“Unfortunately, delays due to overregulation and elected officials effectively paralyzed by pressure from advocacy groups have cost our region vital trade-based jobs. And, as many experts predicted, Canada is all too happy to take these jobs,” said Kathryn Stenger, spokesperson for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports.

The WMF report highlighted a unilateral expansion of regulatory powers by the state of Washington. The federation’s report stated, “…in 2014 the Washington State Department of Ecology effectively broadened the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) permit review process to include a discretionary…component that analyzes the impacts of life-cycle greenhouse gas…emissions from transportation impacts – even those occurring outside the state.”

Uncertainty Constrains Investment

The WMF continued, “The lack of a process or clear timeframe for decision-making in Washington factors as a disincentive to investment in the state’s ports, pushing these jobs and economic opportunities to other North American ports.”

The Washington Research Council (WRC) in its own recent report shared related concerns about the effects of the state’s cumbersome project review process.

WRC stated, “The expanded SEPA (process) and associated political activism have resulted in permitting delays, project cancellations, and even outright bans of projects involving certain commodities. This negatively impacts the communities involved that would have benefited from increased jobs and tax revenues.”

SEPA Was Supposed To Be About Local, Not Global Impact

“SEPA was designed and intended to evaluate localized impacts associated with a project in our state,” Gerry O’Keefe, Senior Director of Environmental Affairs at the Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA), told Lens. “When you say that a product, commodity or manufactured product continues to have impacts outside the state of Washington you start to make a lot of guesses, and that policy or approach concerns us.”

“No one is on the same page…governments fighting governments, states fighting states…this does nothing but harm the average American worker,” Herb Krohn told Lens. He is Washington Director of the International Association of the Sheet Metal, Aviation, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Workers Union – Transportation Division.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on September 30 released the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Millennium project, and found no major barriers in terms of coal dust, impacts on fish and water quality, and air pollutant emissions during project construction.

On Monday, October 24 an estimated 750 people attended both afternoon and night public hearings in Longview to comment on the Army Corps’ DEIS. The final state EIS under SEPA is to be issued in mid-2017.

According to the Longview Daily News, Millennium CEO Bill Chapman stated at the hearing, “If complaints continue about dust, we will know it’s a device just to deceive. Facts do matter. We will not be fooled by opponents who do not listen to facts.”

Native American tribe members criticized the study for not estimating salmon deaths or injuries stemming from the project. Other opponents said the Corps should have looked at greenhouse gas emission from coal extraction to combustion, instead of only during facility construction and operation.

The public comment period for the federal DEIS ends November 29.

Oregon Has Already Seen This Movie

Oregon is already experiencing what Washington growth backers nervously anticipate seeing more of, if permit delays continue. Lighthouse Resources, a Salt Lake City-based coal mining company, announced last month it will ship U.S. Powder River Basin coal to Asia through Canada instead of as originally planned, via Oregon’s Port of Morrow and then Columbia River barges to U.S.-based oceangoing vessels.

“We are very excited to commence supplying our South Korean customers with the coal they’ve sought,” said Everett King, President and CEO of Lighthouse this month in a press release. “South Korea has one of the cleanest, most efficient coal-fired electrical generation fleets on the planet.”

The company was the sole backer of the Morrow Pacific project, for which Oregon denied a permit. The company began to mount an appeal, but decided to drop it. Now, its Asia-bound cargo will travel through Westshore Terminals in Vancouver, B.C.

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